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3 Approaches to Going Back to the Office After COVID-19

office, workplace, return to office
Belynda Cianci
Published on
July 1, 2020

Though summer often brings up images of vacation and leisure, the summer of 2020 has everyone thinking about heading back to work. With states beginning to relax stay-at-home restrictions, a return to the physical workplace may be close on the horizon for millions of workers. 

For other states, reopening isn’t in the short-term plans. Not to mention states like Texas, California, and Arizona that are actively reversing their plans to reopen due to recent COVID-19 spikes. For a constantly up-to-date view of how different states are reopening, check out this map from the NY Times. 

Wherever your state falls in the reopening spectrum, the pervasive question for employees and employers now remains: what will going back to work look like? What safety and social distancing measures will be in place to keep everyone safe, and how will companies determine the mechanics of a return to the office? 

The truth is, the return to work will look different for every organization. Local procedures will play a part in determining what the journey looks like, but ultimately each company needs to find a unique solution for its people. Some offices may see the entire staff back to work simultaneously, where other organizations will continue on in the remote workstyle first embraced in the wake of COVID-19 outbreaks. Even companies that were remote-first or flexible before the pandemic will reconsider their long-term re-entry strategy.

Different Approaches for Returning to the Workplace

Most office return plans will fall into one of three camps: 

  1. A full-time return to the physical office for all 
  2. A flexible, hybrid approach with some employees in-office and some working from home  
  3. A fully-remote approach with few (if any) in-office hours

1. The In-Office Return

Office map

While some estimates report that over 56% of US workers have a job compatible remote work, for the other half, at least intermittent presence in the office is necessary to their role. Industries such as manufacturing, pharmaceuticals, healthcare, and engineering cannot effectively complete work functions 100% remote. For these organizations, planning the return to work may require a significant amount of adjustments and accommodations to meet the health and safety demands of the post-COVID office space

In this scenario, office layout and density are the keys to success. Maximizing the safety and utility of the space in your office - identifying dead zones, converting storage into office space, and ensuring safety measures like shielding and safe ventilation - will take priority as you plan. 

As you develop a plan for a 100% in-office return, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Does your current headcount allow everyone to come in while safely distancing? 
  • Can workers come in on a pre-arranged shift schedule to stagger headcount? 
  • Do you have areas (such as conference rooms or social gathering spots) that could be converted to distanced workspaces? 
  • What budget do you have to rework your physical workspaces? 
  • Do you need to develop new safety or physical distancing policies for employees to follow?

2. Flexible or hybrid work environments

Office map

For some organizations, the return-to-work plan will look different depending on the role or department. Where some roles may need in-office time, others can perform functions from home. In this case, a flexible work approach or hybrid experience may benefit your organization by reducing physical headcounts and minimizing the need for office re-design work. Where pre-COVID flexible work numbers were already improving, in the post-pandemic workplace, that growth could be greatly accelerated. Flexible work is a major perk for workers in normal times. In this new era of work, it can signal to potential employees that the company is forward-thinking and values the health of its workforce. 

In a flexible workplace, good communication and even better technology take the lead in planning. Employees must be empowered to do great work from home, report their progress (using an app like Asana or Monday), collaborate effectively with teams (using whiteboard Apps like Miro or Workfront), and get access to any of the resources they’d expect to find in the office (such as filesharing, leaderboards, or wikis). 

Before embarking on a flexible work plan for your return, a few questions must be considered: 

  • How flexible is your office currently? Did employees have the ability to work from home before COVID-19? 
  • If you opt to have some employees in-office and some working remotely, how will you maintain a strong company culture in a hybrid experience? 
  • If so, what expansions could be made in your flexible work program to make it even more powerful? 
  • What technology improvements would be needed to bring your office full flexibility? 
  • How could flexible work policies reduce some of the infrastructure changes needed in the physical workplace? Would you be able to permanently reduce headcount in a meaningful way? 
  • Are there roles that still must be present in the office, and if yes, how will you define and communicate those parameters?

3. Fully-remote workforce

Home office desk

Many businesses that had never considered a move to the remote workforce are now considering the future of their organization and how remote work could figure in. COVID-19 is ushering in a new understanding of work and how the workplace can be affected by outside events. In the interest of keeping everyone healthy and productive, some companies, like Twitter, Square, and Salesforce have already announced the move to remote-first culture. Additionally, the cost savings potential of leaving the physical office makes remote-first work extremely attractive. However, it’s not as simple as one factor or one decision. 

Remote work requires extra effort in several areas to best replicate the beneficial social aspects of the office. In addition, keeping everyone productive requires a significant and ongoing commitment to a robust tech stack.

If you’re considering not returning to the office, some questions that may arise include:

  • What changes will you need to make to your technology in order to provide the best experience for your workforce? 
  • What, if any, physical office space will you maintain for in-person meetings or events? 
  • What are the current lease or rental agreements in place for your current physical office space? 
  • How will you encourage and promote your office culture in a remote environment, ensuring your team still fees connected and invested? 
  • What social programs or events will you employ to combat some of the downsides of remote work (isolation, under-communication, culture disconnect)? 
  • What departments will require the most support in the changeover to remote work?

Getting back in the office: Many roads home

Every company return will look different, but all deserve to be comfortable and well-implemented. No matter what path your organization takes back to the office, you can ensure a healthy and happy return with a solid return to the office game-plan

If you’d like help with any aspect of the return-to-work process, check out the resources available in our COVID-19 Hub, or reach out to a robin workplace expert for more info. 

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